Thursday, 25 October 2012
Thoughts on The Preparation of the Novel by Roland Barthes
The haiku, Barthes says, is the short form which best represents the present. It is tangible, particular. It creates the effect of the real, which he explains: 'language fading into the background, to be supplanted by a certainty of reality: language turning in on itself, burying itself and disappearing, leaving bare what it says.'
The titular Preparation of the Novel is a transcription of two series of lectures (1978-80), which Barthes completed just weeks before his death. It's a difficult read, with multiple allusions and covering many fields of knowledge and, despite Barthes' caution to his audience not to underestimate what the layout of speech on the page can do, the pages of this book are peppered with off-putting symbols and endless parentheses. However, his oratorial style- confident, bordering on arrogant, but also self-disparaging and funny, and the poignancy of his death- he was knocked down by a van outside the college and died a few weeks after the course ended, together with the fascinating questions he posits, make this book compelling.
Barthes forces his audience/reader/the would-be writer to think, and to think specifics. Finding the right word; putting the words in the right order, taking into account sound and syntax; creating rhythm within the sentence and within the paragraph; ordering paragraphs; ordering chapters, creating rhythm within the work as a whole: these are our concerns, because we want to create the effect of the real, at least those of us who are writing realist fiction. The job of the writer is to weave words so, like fine cloth, the work, the craft, the word itself, becomes invisible, leaving only the effect. Haiku, for Barthes, 'sets a bell ringing': the effect has been created.
The Haiku, Barthes contends, outwits the desire to interpret, whereas a story has causalities, consequences. A haiku is like a photograph, but without the excess of meaning a photograph contains. The writer is forced to be selective: what we choose to take from reality in order to give the effect of the real. Language, like the world, can be divided indefinitely, but it is a question of what point one decides to set it down.
To move from haiku to narration, since haiku is impossible to extend, Barthes looks to epiphanies, 'the sudden revelation of the quiddity of a thing', and to Joyce's Stephen Hero, as a linked chain of moments. This prompts him to consider the possibility of studying a work starting with its moments of truth, which in turn forces the reader-writer to consider her own novel in the same way.
Barthes (and his reader) wonders where the desire to write comes from; it comes from the pleasure of reading. But then he wonders who the readers are who don't write. He does not speculate, instead leaving us to reflect on what makes a creative person, a person creative: material for another course of lectures, at the very least.
Much of the second series focuses on finding time to write, or the life of the author, and Barthes considers seeming insignificant issues such as solitude, secrecy, schedules, regimes of food and sleep, whether or not to read while writing, and so on. I found it less interesting than the first series, perhaps in part because it is speculative, since Barthes has not yet begun writing his novel. He wonders: 'how to get out of this situation?' (of having a few notes, fragments plus the fantasy of the work), and answers: 'I've no idea because it's the state I was in on the day I drafted this course.' However, I did note that the methodical life of the writer seems to refer exclusively to the male writer, and that there is not a child in sight.
Barthes' undertaking these lectures was both generous and brave; most writers do not dare to poke too much at the elusive and easily frightened animal that is the realm of ideas and inspiration. Whether he sabotaged his own novel, Vita Nova, in the process, we do not find out. Eight pages, reproduced in the book, are all there is of it. However, at the end of his course he does admit: 'It's not even clear to me... that I'll write anything else... Because the bereavement (the death of his mother) I evoked two years ago, at the beginning of this Course, has profoundly and obscurely altered my desire for the world.'